Some states prohibit convicted felons from voting for life. Other states let criminals vote even while they are in prison. Still other states - including New Jersey - ban prison inmates and people on parole or probation from voting but allow them to vote once their full sentences have been served.
In other words, there is wide variation around the country on this issue.
We've never quite understood the rationale for restricting the voting rights of people who have been convicted of crimes. Certainly a lifetime ban seems unnecessarily punitive. What purpose does that serve other than to just inflict an additional penalty on a criminal who has already served his or her sentence?
Banning current prisoners from voting doesn't make much more sense. Certainly, bringing voting booths and poll workers into prisons would pose logistical and security issues - was that the original rationale? But now that New Jersey has a sound system for voting by mail, none of that is necessary.
Do states ban felons from voting simple because they can? Simply to exact one more measure of punishment? If so, that seems rather petty - and counterproductive. Further isolating people already on the margins of society leads to more criminals, not fewer.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has urged states to repeal laws prohibiting felons from voting. That's a discussion we should have in New Jersey.
Instead of having that discussion, however, state Sen. Ronald Rice has sparked an entirely different debate with a bill, S2050, that would allow inmates and people on parole or probation to vote - if they are military veterans.
No disrespect to the men and women who have served in the armed forces - but Rice's proposal puzzles us. What's the connection? If you think restrictions on felons voting are a good idea, what difference should military service make? And if you think such restrictions are a bad idea, what would be the rationale for lifting them only for veterans?
Yes, serving in the military is admirable. We owe our veterans a great debt. They deserve the many perks and programs set up to honor and reward them. But this particular perk for veterans would simply make no sense.
Instead, let's have a full discussion of the larger issue of prisoners' voting rights.